Rajeshwari Devi’s voice is the voice of 6,000 tribal villagers, driven out of their homes by Left extremists, living as refugees at government-run relief camps, some of them for years. Rajeshwari stays at a camp in Arrabore, 30 km from the Chhattisgarh-Andhra Pradesh border. She teaches the children in the camp for free, and earns a living by sewing clothes for the jawans of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) who guard the area.
Many villagers had joined the state-backed tribal militia Salwa Judum (Peace Mission in local Halbi dialect), started in 2005 to counter the Maoists, when the police and security forces proved inadequate for the task. The attempt did not succeed in cowing down the Maoists who hit back with greater force, targeting particularly those villages from which large numbers of Salwa Judum members were recruited. Attacked and threatened , residents of such villages moved into camps like this one. Guarded by the CRPF, camp dwellers still do not feel secure. “We fear for our lives even now,” said Rajeshwari.
Officials estimate there are 50,000 tribals in seven such camps in the naxal-infested areas of Chhattisgarh. Special polling booths are being set up for voters among them.
“Our houses have already been burnt down,” said Rajeshwari. “For the last two years I have been going back to my village in the morning and returning in the evening but have not been able to find all the cattle I left behind.”
“We want a government that will enable us to return to our village and guarantee our security there,” said an agitated Hasshi Molla, staying at the adjoining Kurti relief camp, whose 17 year old son was killed by Naxals.
At the Dornapal relief camp, the biggest in the area, 140 km from the town headquarters of Dantewada district, inmates said though campaigning by candidates had been low key in the area, they knew who they wanted. “They (candidates) have come here only twice. We know they are scared (of Naxals) but we are not. We shall vote and get a government which gives our homes back,” said Podium Dima of Murliguda village.
Heavily armed para-miltiary personnel will protect the booths in these camps, but the Congress also fears residents may be forced to vote for the BJP. “Under the guise of providing protection to camp inmates, they will be coerced into voting for the ruling party in the state unless adequate precautionary measures are put in place,” said Ajit Jogi, former chief minister who is spearheading the Congress campaign. He has written to the Election Commission demanding the removal of state-government appointed “camp Adhyakshas”, “whose writ currently runs large in these camps.”